|The dead, rabid raccoon|
Recently, my wife arrived at her school on a hot morning to find the students crowded around a raccoon on the school playground. She has had her students read Rascal by Sterling North (Puffin Modern Classics, 2004), a memoir of the author’s childhood and his companionship with raccoon he kept as a pet. It is a beautiful and moving story but this raccoon on the playground was not loveable or cute or anything like Rascal. When she made her way through the tight circle of kids, my wife saw this raccoon staggering around like a drunken sailor. He was hissing and spitting, and from his mouth dripped frothy strands of drool. She recognized the danger immediately and began ushering the kids into their classrooms and away from the area. The raccoon fell over a final time and stayed down, eyes glassy, breathing shallow and rapid. Rabies in animals is fatal, and this raccoon was on his way to dying on the skillet-hot asphalt of the school playground.
More and more, wild animals roam urban streets: rats, squirrels, opossums, raccoons, coyotes, and even mountain lions. As cities and suburbs expand into nature with tract homes and shopping centers, these encounters are inevitable.
At the college where I teach in the tony suburbs of Los Angeles, there have been two confirmed mountain lion sightings on campus as well as numerous coyotes, deer and hawks. In every neighborhood there is an abundant supply of food in the trash cans lining the streets ready for pickup each week. When we have high heat like we’ve had this week, animals need food they can get at without much exertion as well as a reliable source of water, both for drinking and cooling down. In homes built up against the local mountains, it is not uncommon for bears to come down for a swim in someone’s pool.
We are not comfortable with these encounters. They bring us up against the raw power of nature. Coyotes attack cats and dogs. Raccoons can spread trash up and down the street and become aggressive if a human approaches.
On an evening walk, I was chased for a block by an angry raccoon, something I laugh about now but was actually a little scary. Later, driving by the spot where the chase began, I saw the mother raccoon and her kits. She had been protecting her den when she chased me away.
A friend was awakened one night by the sound of glasses shattering and pots and pans being thrown around the kitchen. When she snapped the light on, six or seven raccoons froze in the act of vandalism. They had been raiding her cupboards and pantry having gained entrance through the doggy door. Luckily, they had finished their pillaging and one by one, quietly slid out the way they came in like chastened delinquents.
In addition to the danger these wild encounters present, the animals often carry parasites and disease. The experts who were summoned to remove the now dead raccoon on the playground believed the animal was rabid and posed a threat to students even after dying. The two most common diseases for raccoons are rabies and canine distemper. If the animal carried parasites, these organisms now needed a new host, so they would be abandoning the dead in search of living mammals, possibly even a human host.
When wild animals enter urban areas it is a dangerous reminder that we share our planet with other creatures and that our intellect may not save us from nature and instinct. Too often, we assign human characteristics to these wandering creatures; we find them cute and playful. But they are wild animals and not human, and children especially are vulnerable to this misconception. YouTube videos aside, animals look to fulfill needs: food, water, dominance. In a moment, they can turn from playful to feeling threatened which precipitates an attack. An animal protecting its young is unpredictable and aggressive.
So what do we do?
We remain vigilant. We teach children about the awesome power of nature and that the beauty and majesty of an animal, or its playfulness, does not lessen the danger in the confrontation on our street or in our backyard. We have a symbiotic relationship with everything on this earth. Even a dead raccoon offers a lesson on how to co-exist with nature. In danger there are teachable moments. Wild animals living among us presents dangers but also an opportunity to learn and understand our world, and that, when precautions are taken, is a gift.